Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bill Clinton on marijuana, Scott McClellan on propaganda, and now another example of bad timing

Olmert Says Israel Should Pull Out of West Bank by Ethan Bronner

"We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

Wow, who is this guy? What good ideas he has! If only he had occupied a position of power over the last few years...

Granted, by straying from the right-wing Likud party line, insufficiently demonizing the Palestinians, and suggesting that Israeli policies have ever been misguided, he is clearly an anti-Semite according to the American definition of the term.

That's what democracy looks like!?

Dysfunction in Washington Exacts a Heavy Price by Gerald F. Seib

Penetrating analysis from Gerald Seib: our the political system isn't working, essentially, because legislation that the majority of voters did not want, was not passed. Unless he is an opponent of democracy (given the economic intelligentsia's recent lurch towards socialism, perhaps that is a risky assumption?), the problem he mentions is a problem with our public square, where voters would ideally learn about and debate ideas.

Regardless of how the citizenry is laughably mis-, dis-, and uninformed, I think they would go for a bailout plan that would operate like a private equity deal. They get "preferred stock and collateral from a bank borrowing from the taxpayers, both in the full amount of the loan sought by the bank. In other words, stock plus collateral in double the amount of the loan. Taxpayers profit from a bailout before anyone else does."

There: a solution that satisfies the "no-socialism-for-the-rich" left, and the masturbating-to-the-Market right, the latter who might like the thought of acting, as a taxpayer, like a real market participant.

From bailout to buy-in

A Better Bailout Plan by David Estabrook

"Taxpayers receive preferred stock and collateral from a bank borrowing from the taxpayers, both in the full amount of the loan sought by the bank. In other words, stock plus collateral in double the amount of the loan. Taxpayers profit from a bailout before anyone else does.

Thanks to Warren Buffett and Goldman Sachs for the heads-up by disclosing the terms of their deal, which should be the low water mark for any taxpayer bailout. A higher water mark would be the terms suggested above, which are not uncommon in private equity deals and chapter 11 bailouts."

If Congress proposed a bailout like this one, I'd support it. Get some fucking equity for our $700B capital injection, and quit acting like pussies. Wait but we're Americans. "We couldn't do that because if we had - oh I mean if 'the government' had equity in these banks, that would be 'socialism'. I don't really know much about socialism except that it's a word that means "not-good", and I don't like not-good things. I can't really discuss it any further, except maybe to say that it's un-American (which is also a not-good thing)."

Monday, September 29, 2008

Welcoming economic (non-conventional) wisdom

Is Purchasing $700 billion of Toxic Assets the Best Way to Recapitalize the Financial System? by Nouriel Roubini

If in the U.S. we had a news media, rather than a strange cross between a ministry of information and a political entertainment industry, ideas such as these would be front and center amid the bailout discussions. This economist, one of the non-mainstream, heterodox, anti-neoliberal economists who predicted the housing crash and credit crisis well in advance, looks here at a recent IMF study of 42 banking crises around the world. Guess what? The results leave very little support for the current bailout proposal.

But what to expect from politicians who have been receiving advice from the very economists whose paradigm has been proven so clearly wrong over the past 30 years, culminating in a true mega-clusterfuck of falsification in the past year...?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Friedman's Disease vaccine

Video: Robert Fisk - ‘The Middle East Is Not a Complex Place’

Statistics show that people living in the U.S. have a greater risk of coming down with a case of being a total fucking idiot. Particularly when it comes to opinions about foreign countries. (Epidemiologists are studying promising linkages between television news and writers like Tom Friedman, and this epidemic of misinformed stupidity.)

In the meantime, inoculate yourself with a journalist who's lived a good part of his life in the Middle East, talking, living, eating, sharing, etc. with common people. Not exclusively foreign-educated policy professionals, economists, and CEOs, like that sack of wasted carbon, hydrogen and oxygen Friedman...

Oh, and here's a video of Tom Friedman demonstrating why the United States' plague of misinformation - and a resulting murderousness - deserves to be named after him:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

We're number what, we're number what?

If donating 0.25% of one's budget to assisting the world's poor is generous, then the United States is one of the most generous countries in the world, and I am one of the most generous people in the world.

From here:
"And perhaps most disturbing, more than half of Americans today believe that the United States spends 24 per cent of its budget on aid to poor countries. In reality, the figure is actually less than one-quarter of one percent -- so the public view is off the mark by about 10,000 percent. As individuals, Americans are not stingy. They personally donated more to tsunami relief in Asia than their own government did. But they are woefully uninformed and misinformed by the media through which they perceive the world."

The US government spends 0.25% of it's budget on foreign aid. Which at any rate comprises mostly military aid and loans - which must be paid back by the poor country's people, while the money routinely goes to developed nations' corporations to build often needless infrastructure (or needed only by extractive industries that sell the country's resources at cheap prices to rich foreigners while concentrating profits in the hands of a few well-connected businessmen), with kickbacks of course going to the countries' often corrupt leaders. Meanwhile the magic of compound interest ensures that poor people the world over will for a long time be in the perverse position of paying out more money in interest and debt repayment to the governments of the world's wealthiest countries than these same countries offer in foreign aid.

"One therefore is tempted to question just what the term 'aid' has come to mean. Etymologically, aid in its modern sense means to help, assist, afford support or relief. But in feudal law it meant a customary payment made by a vassal or tenant to his lord. There is a certain irony here, because what has principally been helped by U.S. aid programs is the U.S. balance of payments, U.S. industry and commerce, and long-range U.S. strategic goals. Over time the net flow of foreign exchange is not from the United States to aid-borrowing countries as implied in the modern connotation of the term 'aid,' but from the borrowers to the United States as in the feudal connotation. So-called foreign aid is, indeed, feudatory. Aid has imposed vassalage on developing countries in the form of contractual debt services which represent mortgages on their future balance-of-payments earning power, as well as heavy opportunity costs of foregoing actions designed to guide their economies towards self-sustaining growth according to their independent desires." (From Super Imperialism by Michael Hudson)

If you want to see an arena in which the US government is (and has been, since Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex) generous, look no further than the booming business of turning plowshares into swords:

So please do not make the mistake of attributing to the US government the quality of "generosity" in the foreign aid department, just because your information-malnourished mammalian brain can't get over the primitive desire to believe "we good, they bad." Because when it comes to aid:


Net ODA in 2007 as percent of Gross National Income
CountryAid amount by GNI

Source: OECD Development Statistics Online last accessed Sunday, April 27, 2008

New Zealand0.27

Why they call him McNasty

(I first saw this posted on the Counterpunch website this afternoon - as of this moment it was no longer up there, so I'm posting it here.)

My Holiday with John McCain by Ana Dubey

"It was just before John McCain’s last run at the presidential nomination in 2000 that my husband and I vacationed in Turtle Island in Fiji with John McCain, Cindy, and their children, including Bridget (their adopted Bangladeshi child).

It was not our intention, but it was our misfortune to be in close quarters with John McCain for almost a week, since Turtle Island has a small number of bungalows and their focus on communal meals force all vacationers who are there at the same time to get to know each other intimately.

He arrived at our first group meal and started reading quotes from a pile of William Faulkner books with a forest of Post-Its sticking out of them. As an English Literature major myself, my first thought was “if he likes this so much, why hasn't he memorized any of this yet?” I soon realized that McCain actually thought we had come on vacation to be a volunteer audience for his “readings” which then became a regular part of each meal. Out of politeness, none of the vacationers initially protested at this intrusion into their blissful holiday, but people’s buttons definitely got pushed as the readings continued day after day.

Unfortunately this was not his only contribution to our mealtime entertainment. He waxed on during one meal about how Indo-Chine women had the best figures and that our American corn-fed women just couldn't meet up to this standard. He also made it a point that all of us should stop Cindy from having dessert as her weight was too high and made a few comments to Amy, the 25 year old wife of the honeymooning couple from Nebraska that she should eat less as she needed to lose weight.

McCain’s appreciation of the beauty of Asian women was so great that David the American economist had to move his Thai wife to the other side of the table from McCain as McCain kept aggressively flirting with and touching her.

Needless to say I was irritated at his large ego and his rude behavior towards his wife and other women, but decided he must have some redeeming qualities as he had adopted a handicapped child from Bangladesh. I asked him about this one day, and his response was shocking: “Oh, that was Cindy’s idea – I didn't have anything to do with it. She just went and adopted this thing without even asking me. You can't imagine how people stare when I wheel this ugly, black thing around in a shopping cart in Arizona . No, it wasn't my idea at all.”

I actively avoided McCain after that, but unfortunately one day he engaged me in a political discussion which soon got us on the topic of the active US bombing of Iraq at that time. I was shocked when he said, “If I was in charge, I would nuke Iraq to teach them a lesson”. Given McCain’s personal experience with the horrors of war, I had expected a more balanced point of view. I commented on the tragic consequences of the nuclear attacks on Japan during WWII –- but no, he was not to be dissuaded. He went on to say that if it was up to him he would have dropped many more nuclear bombs on Japan. I rapidly extricated myself from this conversation as I could tell that his experience being tortured as a POW didn't seem to have mellowed out his perspective, but rather had made him more aggressive and vengeful towards the world.

My final encounter with McCain was on the morning that he was leaving Turtle Island. Amy and I were happily eating pancakes when McCain arrived and told Amy that she shouldn't be having pancakes because she needed to lose weight. Amy burst into tears at this abusive comment. I felt fiercely protective of Amy and immediately turned to McCain and told him to leave her alone. He became very angry and abusive towards me, and said, “Don't you know who I am.” I looked him in the face and said, “Yes, you are the biggest asshole I have ever met” and headed back to my cabin. I am happy to say that later that day when I arrived at lunch I was given a standing ovation by all the guests for having stood up to McCain’s bullying.

Although I have shared my McCain story informally with friends, this is the first time I am making this public. I almost did so in 2000, when McCain first announced his bid for the Republican nomination, but it soon became apparent that George Bush was the shoo-in candidate and so I did not act then. However, now that there is a very real possibility that McCain could be elected as our next president, I feel it is my duty as an American citizen to share this story. I can't imagine a more scary outcome for America than that this abusive, aggressive man should lead our nation. I have observed him in intimate surroundings as he really is, not how the media portrays him to be. If his attitudes toward women and his treatment of his own family are even a small indicator of his real personality, then I shudder to think what will happen to America were he to be elected as our President."

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas

The Political Economy of Media: Enduring Issues, Emerging Dilemmas by Robert McChesney

"The pipelines of thought to the minds of the nation are being contracted and squeezed. About thirty men realistically dominate the conduits of thought through the ether, the printing presses, and the silver screen. Without wide diversity of thought, freedom of speech and press become idle bits of a worn-out shibboleth. The cartelization of the mind of America is well on the way."

So wrote a one-time lawyer for the Newspaper Guild in 1945. This book is a collection of McChesney's articles published in a variety of magazines and journals over the past couple of decades.

"'If the country is governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the newspapers,' Harvard professor Hugo Munsterberg wrote in 1911, 'is it not essential to understand who governs the newspapers?'" Indeed, and that is what this book covers. Not to ruin the suspense, but the majority of the press is owned by only a handful of corporations. Even if there were absolutely no ideological consistency among the directors of these corporations, the mere need to profitably compete with each other would create pressure to cost-cut actual news gathering, just as it has been. It is this cost-cutting that has decimated newsrooms and foreign bureaus, and it is the need for profits that keeps news tame, bland and uninformative so as not to bother the customers - the advertisers. A radio reformer in the 1930s wrote presciently that "it is unavoidable that a commercial concern catering to the public will present a service as low in standards as the public will tolerate and will produce the most profit." Wait is there a Paris Hilton TV show on tonight?

So there's no need to posit that the men who run these corporations have an understanding to produce a vilely inept media so as to make people stupid and docile. The market is capable of doing that on its own. And if you think the market fucked up mortgage and investment banking, ratings and insurance pretty royally, you can only imagine what it has done to the press.

"[In the first half of the 20th century] the power of the press was axiomatic. 'The American press has more influence than it ever had in any other time, in any other country,' Will Irwin wrote in 1911. 'No other extrajudicial form except religion, is half so powerful.' Charles Edward Russell expressed the sentiments of many, when he wrote in La Follette's in 1910, 'If the people of the entire United States could be informed every day of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it, the peculiar stranglehold that the corporations have upon national legislation would last no longer than the next election.'"

That sounds like a pretty good reason to keep people uninformed of exactly what happens at Washington and the reason for it. And so it has been up until today. And in these days of chaos, with markets seizing up and crashing, wars all over the place and nuclear tensions building up, it's interesting to hear something a campaigner for more public control of radio said back in 1931-2:

"As a result of radio broadcasting, there will probably develop during the twentieth century either chaos or a world-order of civilization. Whether it shall be one or the other will depend largely upon whether broadcasting be used as a tool of education or as an instrument of selfish greed. So far, our American radio interests have thrown their major influence on the side of greed. ... There has never been in the entire history of the United States an example of mismanagement and lack of vision so colossal and far-reaching in its consequences as our turning of the radio channels almost exclusively into commercial hands.... I believe we are dealing here with one of the most crucial issues that was ever presented to civilization at any time in its entire history. ... In order to get large audiences they cultivate the lower appeals ... commercialized broadcasting as it is now regulated in America may threaten the very life of civilization by subjecting the human mind to all sorts of new pressures and selfish exploitations."

Today, "[i]t would astonish almost any person to see the extent of the research deployed by marketers and advertising agencies to brand their imprint on consumers' brains. Focus groups, psychologists, and cultural anthropologists are de rigueur in marketing research. Modern marketing is clearly the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history." Imagine if the greatest concerted attempt at psychological manipulation in all of human history had an aim other than compelling targets to buy this or that brand of detergent or junk food...

Sadly, this remains in the realm of the imaginary. John Updike commented in 1984, "I have no doubt that the aesthetic marvels of our age, for intensity and lavishness of effort and subtlety of both overt and subliminal effect, are television commercials. With the fanatic care with which Irish monks once ornamented the Book of Kells, glowing images of youthful beauty and athletic prowess, of racial harmony and exalted fellowship, are herein fluidly marshaled and shuffled to persuade us that a certain beer or candy bar, or insurance company or oil-based conglomerate, is ... the gateway to the good life."

Yeah, it sounds pretty funny when put that way. Leave it to a couple of Marxists, Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran, to ruin the mood: "It is sometimes argued that advertising really does little harm because no one believes it anymore anyway. We consider this view to be erroneous. The greatest damage done by advertising is precisely that it incessantly demonstrates the prostitution of men and women who lend their intellects, their voices, their artistic skills to purposes in which they themselves do not believe, and that it teaches 'the essential meaninglessness of all creations of the mind: words, images, and ideas.' The real danger from advertising is that it helps to shatter and ultimately destroy our most precious non-material possessions: the confidence in the existence of meaningful purposes of human activity and respect for the integrity of man."

In one of the final essays in the book, McChesney couches his argument in economic terms: "Even if media markets were competitive [which they are not] and even if income distribution were more egalitarian, the market would be a significantly flawed mechanism for regulating the media system in a free and democratic society. This is not to say that there would not be a role for the commercial marketplace, merely that the commercial media should not be hegemonic. The basic problem is that markets cannot deal with all sorts of important values people may wish to see in their media, and they understand as being necessary for their media system to generate. ... [M]edia owners increasingly produce inexpensive 'news' that avoids costly in-depth and controversial public affairs issues, and concentrate upon trivial or inconsequential stories or the regurgitation of press releases and public comments by those in power. The owners make money and the consumers consume what they are given and appear satisfied, so all is well, right? Wrong. There is a massive negative externality: the dismal journalism effects all in society, including those who are not consumers of commercial journalism. It leads to an ill-informed electorate that makes poor decisions, which affects public life and the health of the economy. It makes democracy, the notion of informed self-government, less plausible."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Review: The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics

The Peru Reader: History, Culture, Politics by Robin Kirk

Really good collection of a variety of excerpts from some interesting books. A lot of good poetry too; like Osman Morote's "A Frightening Thirst for Violence":

"The dictator
shifts his gaze
and a rose
acclaimed as fragrant
falls, in a slice,
from just one

The dictator
swivels his hands
one worker
falls, the wife of a
falls, the children of a

what a frightening thirst
for vengeance
devours me"

Morote became the second-in-command in the Shining Path, which the book treats even-handedly, except it does tend to leave out sufficient details of the kind of daily suffering due to exploitation and inequality that led people like Morote to sacrifice his life. The book does include testimony from a government soldier, casually discussing his rapes, murders and tortures, and mentions that during the war, far more people were killed by the government than by the rebels. Some surprise.

The best instance of a description of the kind of reality people lived in - terribly far away from the wealth and comfort of rich countries - that would explain a bit about why people would give up their lives in the Shining Path or the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement to create a better society: another poem, an excerpt from "The Battle of Ayacucho" by Antonio Cisneros, which strips of glory the decisive battle that won Peru independence from Spain:

From a Mother

My sons and the rest of the dead still
belong to the owner of the horses
and the owner of the lands, and the battles.

A few apple trees grow among their bones
and the tough gorse. That's how they fertilize
this dark tilled land,
That's how they serve the owner
of war, hunger, and the horses."

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Leftist tired being right

Georgia Eager to Rebuild Its Defeated Armed Forces by C. J. Chivers and Thom Shanker

God it's getting wearisome to be Left, because it's tiring to be right... all... the... time. From Dubya being an idiot and a disaster as president, or the Iraq war being a murderously bad idea, to neoliberal, unregulated market policies being dangerously wrongheaded, it's getting old to be vindicated time and time again.

Well, seeing the New York Times finally print an accurate rendition of the Georgia-Russia conflict is hardly vindication, yet it is nice to see in the country's preeminent de facto propaganda organ, even if it comes a month late and thirty-some-odd paragraphs into a distantly-related story:

"In the field, there is evidence from an extensive set of witnesses that within 30 minutes of Mr. Saakashvili’s order, Georgia’s military began pounding civilian sections of the city of Tskhinvali, as well as a Russian peacekeeping base there, with heavy barrages of rocket and artillery fire.

The barrages all but ensured a Russian military response, several diplomats, military officers and witnesses said.

After the Russian columns arrived through the Roki Tunnel, and the battle swung quickly into Russia’s favor, Georgia said its attack had been necessary to stop a Russian attack that already had been under way.

To date, however, there has been no independent evidence, beyond Georgia’s insistence that its version is true, that Russian forces were attacking before the Georgian barrages."